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On Heroes (essay)
In classic literature the vast majority of Hero's display a set of common personality features. These features repeat often enough that they can be considered hallmarks of the Hero personality. But what, really, is a Hero?
A Hero is a character that overcomes all obstacles to succeed. No matter what odds are stacked against him, be they mental or physical – no matter if they are orchestrated by an enemy that can be considered a God. And it doesn't matter what the Hero's origin is—he could be an orphan, a kings bastard or the King himself. The origin doesn't matter, except in a literary sense, where it can be used to disguise the fate of the character at the start of the story.
What makes a Hero a Hero is the personality. If a character displays those qualities, those "Hero Factors", then it probably is a Hero. Note that the character doesn't have to have them all—classically a Hero has had one or two of them in such quantities that it overruled all others. And remember, even though these features are found in literature, they can also be seen in living people who are considered Hero's.
If there is any single factor that a character can display and be considered a Hero it is the willingness to sacrifice themselves for others. Truthfully, this facet of a Hero's personality is so powerful that a lot of people that are considered Hero's displayed this one factor to the exclusion of all others. In literature this role is filled by every Hero, even the modern twist on the concept–the so-called "Anti-Hero".
In the mythology of the Greeks we learn of Achilles, invulnerable to all weapons except in one location. He knew that joining the Trojan War was risking his life, because the Trojans had their own Hero's that matched Achilles for combat skill. But he still took to the field and fought, believing that the Greek people had been wronged and that Troy had to fall. Before the end of the war Achilles was dead, killed by the Trojan Hero Hector with a poisoned arrow.
In the annals of History we learn of the Spartans who fought at Thermopylae under Leonidas. And though they were warriors–Spartans were born into the warrior tradition and their culture raised them to be warriors without any equal–they numbered only three-hundred for the duration of the battle of Thermopylae. Yes, there were something like 3000 other Greek warriors there at the start of the battle, but when it became clear that the defense was a losing proposition they sent the rest of the greek army away. This was nothing if not a practical choice–the Persian army that was invading numbered more than ten thousand men and the defense of the Greek city-states needed as many of the troops at Thermopylae to survive if they were to stop the Persians and remain unconquered. They sacrificed their lives to delay the Persians, paying the ultimate price but forever becoming part of history.
Literature and real life both are filled with Hero's who bear the title based on this factor alone. That is why it can be considered the single most important facet of a Hero's identity. The willingness and ability to sacrifice themselves for others or for their beliefs is such a common thread in life and literature that religion has a special word for it, though that word has become twisted in recent years. I am, of course, referring to the word "Martyr"–twisted into this thing that instills horror in people in the modern world by the swollen ranks of middle-east terrorists.
The second most important facet of a Hero's personality, and the second most common, is that a Hero will always "do the right thing". That is, faced with the choice between dropping a nuclear bomb on a city to end a war or claiming malfunction (that is, not dropping the bomb), they will drop the bomb, because ending the war is the right thing to do.
During World War Two a Sergeant named Roger Young learned that his platoon was heading into combat. Knowing that his deteriorating eyesight and hearing would put his men at risk, he requested to be demoted to Private. This led to him being accused of cowardice, but he perservered and proved that he was worried about his men. When the truth about his eyesight and hearing became known he was offered a desk job and a discharge. He refused them both, knowing that taking either option was the same as the cowardice he had been accused of. Instead he went on patrol with the men he had once led.
The patrol complete they began to return to the base. From the heavy jungle foliage overlooking the trail a Japanese machine-gun fired. Several men died in the original burst, some started to run, some froze in place and some tried to counter attack. The officer that was in charge of the patrol ordered a retreat, but Roger Young pretended to have not heard the order and moved in to attack. It may be that he truly hadn't heard the order, but it is much more likely that he'd spotted the machine guns location and knew that the right thing to do was to save the other men on the patrol.
Even though the Japanese gunner managed to injure him several times, Roger Young pushed on and eventually got close enough to throw several grenades into the machine-gun nest and save the rest of the men. He died before they could get him proper medical care, and while this is also a story of sacrifice, he could simply have retreated as ordered. Instead he chose to "Do the Right Thing" and take out the threat to the men of the patrol. Because of this action he was posthumously awarded the highest military honor the United States have to offer—the Congressional Medal of Honor.
In the literary world it is difficult to find a situation where the Hero "Does the Right Thing" and succeeds. In Arthurian legend both Arthur and Lancelot try to "do the right thing" and fail and a similar pattern is common throughout the stories. But in one story, that of "The Lord of the Rings", you can find a Hero who "Does the Right Thing" and, had it not been for the quite singular evil against him, would have succeeded in all his goals without the final tragedy.
In that story the hobbit Frodo is given a magic ring by his uncle Bilbo. This ring, it turns out, was crafted as "The One Ring" by the evil known as Sauron, and if Sauron manages to reclaim it, the world is doomed. Frodo is chosen to be the bearer of the ring—the one who will take it into the enemies territory so it can be cast into the fires that formed it and thus destroyed. As he draws nearer to Mount Doom the ring grows heavier and begins to eat at him, slowly and steadily working at twisting the Hobbit into a thing of evil like the "Ring Wraiths" or the sadly twisted creature Gollum.
Frodo knew the risks and accepted them, not wishing for anyone else to be faced with the fate that the ring could cause. He "did the right thing" and took the journey to destroy the ring. That is the mark of a Hero, a sign that he has this "hero factor" in his personality.
What person has not been asked, at one time or another, to set aside their own beliefs for a moment to think about something? But how many people would willingly do that for an extended period of time in order to fight for a different part of their beliefs? The answer is that most people will never willingly set aside anything–beliefs, emotions, needs, etc…–to fight for something. But it is the third most common feature of the Hero personality, the third of the "Hero Factors". Hero's will gladly put the needs of their society ahead of their own needs and desires.
During the Judaen Rebellion in the first century BC a group of soldiers and their families took refuge at the mountain fortress of Masada. The Roman army surrounded the mountain and besieged it. For weeks the Israeli rebels held firm and repulsed the attacks, but the Romans finally pushed a road through to the walls of the fortress and all was lost. Rather than give in and allow themselves to be used as examples by the Romans, the defenders of Masada killed their families and took their own lives.
Oddly, this facet of being a Hero is both common and uncommon—it's often ascribed to large groups and never to individual people. Masada and Thermopylae are two places where groups of people put their society ahead of themselves, and there are numerous others. But when you start looking for people, both in real life and in literature, that are ascribed this feature it becomes hard to find. In fact, I have spent several hours searching for a relatively well known literary work that has a character that displays this (and that I have not used in another example) and have kept coming up empty.
However, there is a great example that was hiding in plain sight. Again we turn to Tolkien, this time his wonderful romp of an adventure "The Hobbit" and the story of Bilbo Baggins. Hobbits are not, according to Tolkien, an adventurous people–on the contrary it is rare for a Hobbit to ever leave the village where it was born. Yet Bilbo Baggins, the titular Hobbit, takes the Wizard Gandalfs offer of adventure and journeys with a group of Dwarves to reclaim their ancestral home from a dragon. The clash between the Dwarves and the Dragon had nothing to do with Bilbo, but he pushed all of that aside, even his own safety, to help them reclaim their home.
Of all of the factors, this is one of the few that, no matter the quantity displayed, does not a hero make. This is because it is simply that common–in fact, parents commonly set aside their own wants, needs and desires in favor of the wants and needs of their children. But that does not make this any less of a "Hero Factor" than the others.
In literature and the real world the least common of the "Hero Factors" to find is responsibility. That is, a Hero will accept responsibility for the outcome of their actions, whether the outcome is good or bad, intended or not. In literature this is often glossed over, with there never being "bad" consequences, and all unintended consequences turn out to be favorable. This may not be realistic, but it saves people from being exposed to the nasty fact that, in reality, very few people will accept responsibility for anything at all.
For the perfect example of a Hero that has this feature–in other words, one who will take responsibility in the manner detailed above–is Hercules. This is demonstrated by the story of his twelve labors and how he came to be bound to doing them... Put in a drunken rage by Hera, Hercules slaughters his wife and children. Waking the next day and realizing what he's done, he seeks to do penance for his crime to earn the Gods forgiveness. That is, even though he would never have commited that horrendous act without Hera's spell driving him into a blind rage, he accepted responsibility for the deaths because the spell would never have worked had he not been intoxicated.
A hero can possess any combination of the above factors, but the Hero's that people often love possess them all. This can be a problem for the author, because situations and plots that can demonstrate some of the factors have been done so many times that they have become cliched. And worse, the type of "True Hero" that possesses all of the "Hero Factors" in equal amounts has largely fallen out of favor among the public. They see them as "unrealistic" or "predictable". "Unrealistic" because the common person will not sacrifice, take responsibility, set their needs/wants aside and asking them to "Do The Right Thing" is met with "What's in it for me?". And "Predictable" because they lack imagination and feel that everyone else does too–leading them to think that they can always predict how the Hero will "Do the Right Thing".
Sadly, the latter complaint is often true, but not because authors lack imagination. It's true because authors tend to follow set patterns and are afraid to deviate from them. The cause of that fear is the seemingly fickle nature of the book market and the highly competitive nature of the major publishing houses. No, this should not stop someone from breaking those patterns and writing about a "True Hero" that isn't predictable, but it often does. And breaking those patterns can sometimes be impossible, because they could be unconsciously added–be part of the process of writing as that author learned it.
The way to create a "True Hero" is to first treat them as a human being. Find the things that motivate them and where it is they gained the factors or the strength to make them obvious. This should be done for every character in a story, but in almost every story the Hero has a single-dimensional personality–be good, love the "love interest" (if any) and beat the bad guys. This is all that can be said of almost every hero in modern literature and movies—the "human" Hero and the art of creating them has almost disappeared into history..